For those who remember it, the fall of 1988 was a particularly busy time. The Seoul Summer Olympics were winding down, and the U.S. was getting ready to elect a new President. But the news that was captivating the world was of three whales trapped under the ice in North Nowhere (actually Barrow), Alaska.

That story has now been Disney-ified (though by 20th Century Fox, not Disney) in the movie Big Miracle, with John Krasinski and Drew Barrymore.

I say ‘Disney-ified’ because screenwriters Jack Amiel and Michael Begler (Raising Helen) do a decent job of sticking to the facts of the (dare I say) crisis, but there are also copious subplots just dripping with syrupy sweetness and clich├ęs. It’s also very apparent that the intended audience is the tween set (nary a profanity is uttered, unless you count ‘hell’), with characters so thinly drawn that the movie will end without you ever getting a true sense of anyone’s personality.

Not that there’s anything wrong with any of that.

Big Miracle still works for the most part, because it’s a completely captivating story. If you lived through it, fond memories will come flooding back. If you weren’t yet alive, you’ll still get sucked in and will most likely be scouring Wikipedia for more on the story, even before the house lights come up.

The movie begins in October 1988 with greenhorn reporter Adam Carlson (Krasinski) filing fluff stories from Barrow for his Anchorage TV station; the world’s northernmost Mexican restaurant is the topic du jour as the movie begins. When he finds the trapped whales, his report on their plight gets picked up in New York, and before long it’s spreading like wildfire. The media descends on Barrow, and everyone from Big Oil to the White House is getting in on the action.

At the same time, Greenpeace’s Rachel Kramer (Barrymore) is doing what she can to get a rescue effort rolling, while also trying to prevent the native Inupiats from ‘harvesting’ the whales. (It also just happens that she and Adam have recently broken up– oh yes, there’s romantic tension.)

The supporting cast includes a litany of familiar faces, including Ted Danson, Kristen Bell, Dermot Mulroney, Rob Riggle, and Bruce Altman, and they all turn in solid performances, rising above the mediocre script.

Director Ken Kwapis (He’s Just Not That Into You) pulls everything together for an effective, if cluttered, movie. It’s at its best when we’re treated to the original news footage (remember Deborah Norville?) and spared the silliness of moments like Adam hitting on Bel as the pretty, out-of-town reporter. But the overall tension that Kwapis is able to convey makes up for most of the shortcomings. Kudos also to the folks behind the animatronic whales used for the filming; they certainly had me fooled.

The whole story may well have been better served as a documentary, but if it had to be made into a feature film (and, frankly, it’s surprising it took this long), it could have been a lot worse.

3.5/5 stars